Book review: It’s Not the How or the What but the Who

It\\\\\\'s Not the How or the What but the WhoIt’s a cliché that it is “people” who make the difference when it comes to top companies, but like a lot of cliches, it’s probably true.

As Southwest Airlines’ Herb Kelleher once said: 

“Given enough time and money, your competition can duplicate almost everything you’ve got working for you. They can hire away some of your best people. They can reverse-engineer your processes. The only thing they can’t duplicate is your culture.”

As author Claudio Fernández-Aráoz makes clear, the way to start creating that great culture is “with you, the leader, using it as a filter for hiring“, and this book aims to help in that process.

The book’s title comes from a phrase adapted from Amazon boss Jeff Bezos about building a company from start-up then moving to being a larger operation, and Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser at global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, has plenty of experience, having been involved in this process at countless companies, interviewing “… 20,000 executives in more than 40 countries” over the course of his career.

Yet as a recruitment specialist of over 30 years’ experience, he’s also clear that the process is something that most leaders — and managers — are very bad at.

To illustrate this point, he tells of when he spoke at the World Business Forum and asked the audience of senior executives and middle managers “How many of you have made major mistakes while making crucial people choices?“. Every single one of them raised their hands.

As he explains, this is unsurprising. We are still hardwired to make decisions according to four Fs: flight, fight, food and fornication. In caveman times, when deciding “Can I eat that thing or is it going to eat me?”, relying on others was important, and looking for similarities natural. But what was once an effective strategy is seriously limiting. We appreciate and trust people similar to us, yes, but: 

“You cannot be successful in a highly connected, cross-cultural, globally-minded environment if you seek support only from others exactly like you. You need to surround yourself with people who have diverse backgrounds and complementary skills, and who properly challenge you.”

Yet, despite the fact that many of us recognise that our way of thinking, our “software” is obsolete, there is very little updating of it.

At that same World Business Forum, the author found that only 20 people in the audience had studied how to assess people — less than 1 per cent.

Fernández-Aráoz’s book aims to help in that process, and is successful. Thankfully, it isn’t a 240-page advert for using recruitment consultants or headhunters and, in fact, the one short chapter on the subject offers advice on when to use or not use, and what to expect the firm to do for you if you do use them.

The 44 very short chapters, which are each no more than a few pages long, are split into:

  • Recognising your failings
  • Understanding external challenges
  • Assessing and selecting the best
  • Helping your stars shine
  • Fostering collective greatness
  • Making great people decisions where they matter the most.

There are plenty of anecdotes and, refreshingly, a lot of them are personal rather than the same old business stories rehashed. There are even some jokes.

The author once spoke at a leadership retreat to 300 executives and asked, if they could build the company again, what percentage of people currently working at the company would they rehire. The responses were submitted anonymously and the most common reply was “about 50 per cent”. He adds:“It reminded me of the reply Pope John XXIII gave when a journalist asked him how many people worked at the Vatican. ‘About half!’ he joked.”

Every aspect of hiring is considered, including your own failings, the failings that occur in the processes we use to recruit, how to decode references, building checklists and deciding whether people have the right talents for a job. This last is from a chapter that takes its title from the saying “You can train a turkey to climb a tree. But I’d rather hire a squirrel.” 

And no-one needs reminding of the cost of mistakes, as the CEO of Capital One, Richard Fairbank, is quoted as pointing out: “At most companies, people spend 2 per cent of their time recruiting and 75 per cent managing their recruiting mistakes.”

(You can read some more from the author on the Harvard Business Review website where he has a blog.)

The book ends with Fernández-Aráoz recounting his attempts to advise on the recruitment of the next pope (seriously), and since he is Argentinian from Buenos Aires, and Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is too…

It typifies the book. It’s certainly a light-hearted and slightly cheeky note to end on, and all the more welcome for it in comparison with other books I’ve read about recruiting and retaining talent.

An essential read for anyone involved in the hiring of staff.

Harvard Business Review, £16.99

Tom Otley

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  • BigDog.

    Fully agree with Tom’s comments. As an exec coach and NED this is now on my must read list to all my clients. Digby Jones “Employ People Who Are Better Than You”